Saturday, April 30, 2011

China Meets Angola in an Oil Field

Two passages in this piece over at Guernica on Chinese investment in Angola and its oil struck me.

The first:

The Chinese, in turn, wanted little to do with the ordinary people whose country they had come to salvage from the wreckage of the last forty years. One day I met Xia Yi Hua, a middle-aged CEO from Beijing who had been in Angola for the last year and a half. He had contracts with the government to build a hotel in Baya Falte for some of Dos Santos’ most loyal military generals and a police academy in Baya Azul. He welcomed me into a spare waiting room and sat down comfortably in a stiff-backed chair. He got his chicken locally, he told me, but received regular shipments of packaged goods from China. His company sent him food. Everything in his office building, a set of low-rise prefab construction at the end of a highway leading out of Lobito, was either assembled in China, or made by Chinese laborers in Luanda. The wooden coffee table at which we were sitting was made of a rare and beautiful dark-colored Angolan wood, but Xia Yi Hua had brought a Chinese carpenter in to assemble the table. He had his own set of rules. No one from his construction company, China Jiang Su, was allowed to have romantic or sexual ties with Angolans.

“The chief for Jiang Su says that the Chinese who have wives in China, they don’t have the right to be with Angolan girls.”

Anyone caught frequenting local girls, he said, gets sent home. “Yes, fired.”

The gap between the two cultures was too vast, he explained, unbridgeable even in matters of the heart.

“For an Angolan to marry a Chinese girl is very bad too.”

What he wants most, it seems, is more Chinese workers.

“We can’t expand fast enough,” he laughed. “I need more Chinese.”

The second:

Zulu is the one bar in Lobito where everyone goes — the Chinese, the American oil workers, the journalists — and it sits on a wide strip of sand that looks out over the bay and the calm gray waters of the Atlantic. There’s a thatched roof hut with a bar serving tropical drinks, and several wooden tables outside. One afternoon I met Zhou Zhenhong at Zulu. He had been in Africa for five years; two in South Africa, which he found too dangerous, and two in Zambia, which he found too slow and too poor. Angola, on the other hand, was safe enough and rich enough to make it worth his time. When I met him, he hadn’t seen his family in two years and didn’t know when next he would. He used to work for CIF, but in 2006 they pushed him out and told him to start his own company. He started with $1 million in loans and since then has made several million more. “It’s a hundred percent per year,” he said. “That’s unique to this country. You don’t see that anywhere else in Africa. Why? Because the Angolans are pushing like mad to have everything done by tomorrow. They want the best and the fastest. If they want a hotel, they don’t want a three-star, they want a five-star.”

Great piece. Read the whole thing.

Friday, April 22, 2011


I'm off to see Fela! this weekend, original cast and all, in Lagos.

*insert excited squeal here*

It only adds to the experience for me that Femi Kuti, the song of the great man himself, has only good things to say about broadway show, and is pleased now after having insisted the show be performed in Lagos.

By the way, Seun Kuti was interviewed in the Guardian recently. Check that out here. He said he once did a cover of Radiohead's "Paranoid Android" when he was in school, but I couldn't find it on YouTube. Oh well...

Via OkayAfrica, Femi Kuti got the cast of the show to perform live with him at the Shrine in Lagos recently. Wish I was there; this must have been a real treat to see.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Caution: Highly Quotable -- Roberto Bolano

The very-subscribable (hint, hint!) NY Review of Books has been churning out some excellent Bolano essays. I couldn't finish 2666, haven't gotten around to Savage Detectives, and I'm not a fan of the short stories I've heard (yes, heard) so far, but dammit if this doesn't hit the nail square on the head.

Probably all of us, writers and readers alike, set out into exile, or at least a certain kind of exile, when we leave childhood behind. Which would lead to the conclusion that the exiled person or the category of exile doesn’t exist, especially in regards to literature. The immigrant, the nomad, the traveler, the sleepwalker all exist, but not the exile, since every writer becomes an exile simply by venturing into literature, and every reader becomes an exile simply by opening a book.
Almost all Chilean writers, at some point in their lives, have gone into exile. Many have been followed doggedly by the ghost of Chile, have been caught and returned to the fold. Others have managed to shake the ghost and gone into hiding; still others have changed their names and their ways and Chile has luckily forgotten them.

I read this, I think of how Nabokov never stopped writing about Russia, even though he left when he was a child. I think back to Wole Soyinka's We Must Set Forth at Dawn, and the image of him driving across the country upon his return to Ibadan after spending time in Leeds for school. I think of the latest generation of African writers, the ones we'll surely be talking about for years to come – Dinaw Mengistu, Nnedi Okorafor, Petina Gappah. I think of how the bitterest, most cynical Nigerian immigrants felt warm with hope when Nigeria came back from behind to win Brazil, as though that piece of good fortune could somehow transfer to the country's more intransigent problems. I think of my friend's father who was full of anger at his home country that he never taught his daughter, my friend, her native language.

Later on in the piece, Bolano says that “Exile, in most cases, is a voluntary decision” for a lot of writers. That's certainly not true for folks like Soyinka or Chris Abani or Ogaga Ifowodo or a whole host of writers from Somalia and apartheid-era South Africa, but it is for a lot of us modern African immigrants. This is probably due to the cruel irony that the people who most desperately need to leave are often the most trapped, be it in refugee camps or slums or fleeing from village to village in conflict-torn areas. Many of us self-flung across the world aren't forced from our countries because we feel like our lives are in immediate danger. We live in self-imposed exile for the short- and long-term goal of having a better life, however grudgingly we admit that. We're all travelers, with minds like a haunted house, floorboards creaking with cultural sensitives, and expectations of who we will become like silent screams bouncing off the walls in our heads. Maybe that's the point of literature – a way to make sense of this crazy concept of home.

Photo from Latin American Herald Tribune

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Not Speaking Yoruba

It is with more than a pang of regret that I acknowledge that I do not understand Yoruba.

OK, that's not entirely true. After all, there is nothing you can say to me in Yoruba that I won't understand. There isn't enough Nigeria in my voice, apparently, to give this understanding of the language away, but I've actually learned to like that. I relish the look on people's faces when they talk about me in Yoruba as though I am not there, only to have their eyes widen in shock when I respond. Yes, I respond in Yoruba sometimes, so it's probably not true, is it, that I don't know any Yoruba.

I should be more clear: speaking Yoruba, speaking it well, is not the same as speaking English well. You can do quite well without speaking English idiomatically, each word an island that reveals itself through practice of conjugations and direct meaning, like a street increasingly familiar with returning visits. Words in English take their place like soldiers. Subject, verb, direct object. You can get more complex than that if you wanted to, of course, but it really is enough to convey your meaning the majority of the time.

Yoruba, however, doesn't work that way. True, you can learn Yoruba in a classroom, like I did in my primary school days, with paperback textbooks the exact thickness as freshly-ironed adire. You could, but why would you, when you could listen to your grandparents talk, read the Yoruba daily newspaper Alaroyin, watch Yoruba movies and laugh at the grammatically-incorrect English captions? No. Yoruba is to be experienced, lived, not – in the academic sense of the word – learned.

And, anyway, the kind of Yoruba you learn is not the kind of Yoruba you want to speak. Where English lines up, Yoruba is a contortionist. I am going to the market. The market, I am going. Both correct. And as you get to more complex situations, this ability to shape and reshape itself gets even thornier, expecting the speaker to move into a thicket of idioms, metaphor. In English, this will only serve to embellish, soften the stark nakedness of one's words. Not quite so in Yoruba. Individual words in this language can take on so many meanings, depending on where one places emphasis. Ife could be a small, university town some hour or so outside of Ibadan, or it can be love. Oko can mean husband, or perhaps forest, and, maybe, if you really butcher it, penis. This nuance is true not just of Yoruba pronunciation, but of Yoruba itself.

To understand Yoruba, then, is to know not just the words themselves, but the spirit in which the words can be used. Someone like me who merely speaks Yoruba can tell you what is bothering them. A person who truly speaks Yoruba will use metaphor as stand-in for himself, at once distancing himself from his words and bringing him – and by extension, his listener – closer to his real meaning. One realizes that this is not a language to be spoken plainly. And if you do, it is because you don't truly understand.

The older one gets in Nigeria, the more one notices the wedges that so many drive into our society. Accent and language is one such wedge, and it is not lost on me what it means to not speak my language. One finds this in English, too, where even the slightest whiff of foreignness is noted and commented on. Immediately comes to barrage of questions: Where are you from? How long have you lived in Nigeria? How long did you live abroad? These I find more understandable and less curious than the responses one gets to the inability to speak Yoruba. One is often met with what can be described as interest, but it really is something more akin to fascination. Who is this person, where did they come from, that they were so surrounded by English that they never got to learn? On occasion, one may get the “it is your mother tongue, why don't you speak it, eh?” But even this is spoken with in irritability directed at not the fact of one's level of fluency, but rather a fact of one's supposed social status. What that question means is very often “who do you think you are that you can't even deign to speak the language?”

Collective self-esteem issues always seem to pervade post-colonized spaces, and it takes different forms from African countries to the United States, from Asia to Latin America. One may even deem the latching on to something else almost necessary, a step that acknowledges the new standard in which things get validated before crafting something of one's own that meets that standard for oneself. As I say this, I am thinking of the way this new popular culture came up in most African counties, where young folks are no longer ashamed to request songs made in their own countries on radio shows, as they were not even quite a decade ago. I don't know, but I do know that the self-esteem issues that relate to culture metamorphosize, change shape. From the way American conservative nativists in the U.S talk, almost spitting in their withering contempt at the effete ways and artsy sensibilities of Europeans, we from African countries can see ourselves: the way the men from Africa are the more manly; the way the black women are stronger than their frailer, paler counterparts; the way Nigerian children are smarter than white ones, regardless of where the white people come from. We may wallow for awhile, but we always somehow find comfort, grasping at the straws of our inadequacies for something bright to hold on to.

But this is not about the self-esteem of a shapeless collective; it's about my own. After all, it's not like all Nigerians born of my generation speak so abysmally their native language. I wonder what the draw to English and not to Yoruba says about who I was at an earlier age, and what it was that I saw then. And I wonder what this pang of regret really means, and what it says about who I am now.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Congrats, Black Looks/ Women Who Rock

Seeing as I have a quotable from Nawal el-Sadaawi a few posts ago, it seems fitting to mention that the premier grant-making organization for African women NGOs AWDF has a list out of the top 50 African feminists doing big things.

As you've probably guessed, el-Sadaawi herself is on that list. So are other notables like Nigerian actress Joke Silva, singer Angelique Kidjo, Ghanaian filmmaker who directed the remarkable "The Witches of Gambaga" Yaba Badoe, and the green champion herself Wangari Maathai.

Still, the list would have been incomplete for me without fellow blogger Sokari Ekine, who got a mention for "Utilising the power of blogging and new technology to promote the rights of women and LGBTQI persons". Congratulations, Woman!

And if you're curious about The Witches of Gambaga, a film following 2 women -- among the over 1,000 accused of being witches of northern Ghana -- from a camp that housed them after they were ostracized back to their homes, check out The Guardian's video on the documentary here.